Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The March to the Sea

Dates: 15 November to December 21, 1864


Union: Major General William T. Sherman, commander of Union armies in the West.

Confederate: Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler commanding cavalry, Major General William Hardee commanding the Savannah Garrison, and Major General Howard Cobb commanding Georgia Reserves.

Prelude: Sherman holds Atlanta despite Lieutenant General John Hood’s attempts to force a Union withdrawal by wrecking the supply line stretching back to Chattanooga, TN. Hood will launch an invasion into Tennessee which will result in the destruction of his army at the Battles of Franklin (30 November) and Nashville (15-16 December).

Sherman has other ideas. After communicating with the Commander of all Union Armies, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, he decides to take a page out of Grant’s playbook. During the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863, Grant had cut off his supply lines and went overland to Jackson, MS and then to Vicksburg. His army lived off the farms along their route. That gamble paid off in giving the Union control of the Mississippi River.

Sherman knew he would have no trouble getting supplies but while on the march he would be out of communication with Grant. Grant would have no problem with that but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would (he was what one today would call a control freak). President Lincoln would be assured of the abilities of Grant and Sherman to complete the task before them. Lincoln also had a mandate to take the war to its conclusion without any negotiations with the Confederacy due to his recent reelection on 8 November.

Sherman’s plan was simple, he would first destroy Atlanta’s usefulness as a rail center, then he would send his forces down four routes which would converge at Savannah. The troops were ordered to carry 20 days of rations and as much ammunition they would carry. Otherwise, they were to forage “liberally” off the farms along their route.

11 November, 1864: Over the protests of Atlanta city leaders, Sherman orders the city evacuated and burned to the ground. The rail yards, warehouses, and most other buildings, with the exception of churches and a couple of houses, are razed in an operation which is completed by the 15th. This is the first act in a legacy which still causes strong feelings in Georgians today.

16 November, 1864: With 62,000 infantry and cavalry under his command, Sherman orders the advance to begin. The two southern routes are covered by Major General Oliver Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, the two northernmost routes are covered by Major General Henry Slocum’s Army of Georgia, each covered by a cavalry corps under Major General Judson Kilpatrick.

First sign of resistance from the Confederates was militia at Lovejoy’s Station, south of Atlanta on the railroad to Macon. The militiamen were quickly driven off.

19 November, 1864: To face the Federal advance, Georgia Governor Brown issues a call for every able-bodied males to defend the state. There is no rush to join the militia.

20 November, 1864: Sherman runs into more resistance with skirmishes at Clinton, Walnut Creek, East Macon, and Griswoldville. Wheeler’s cavalry and local militia briefly slow the Union advance, but it seems there is no stopping Sherman.

22 November, 1864: Troops of XX Corps enter the state capital of Milledgeville to find that Georgia Legislature had fled the city. Some Union soldiers hold a mock session.

23 November, 1864: Union troops loot and burn Milledgeville. That same day, Hardee is ordered to command the small force available to him.

25 November, 1864: Slocum’s wing of the advance reaches Sandersville, about half way to Savannah.

Sherman’s army is now cutting a swath 60 miles wide through the state.

To help keep the army supplied with food, the Federals employed men called bummers. These men were masters at foraging food and animals from the local farms and towns. As the army prepared to start the day’s march, the bummer would go out on foot. In the evening, as the army settled into camps for the night, the bummer would return on a horse or mule, towing another horse, mule, or even a cow. The animals would be loaded down with grain, chickens, pigs, geese, ducks, and various vegetables. The food would go to the quartermaster (usually that became dinner), the mules would be used to pull supply wagons, and the horses would go to the cavalry as remounts or to officers who lost their mounts. This is how the army was resupplied and it was practically stripping the area bars.

For generations afterward it was told that Sherman’s army had stripped the land bare, leaving behind destruction in their wake. Railroads were broken by pulling off the rails and placing them on a fire that was set using the railroad crossties. The heated rails were then wrapped around the nearest pole or tree, rendering them unusable. These damaged rails became known as “Sherman’s neckties.” It was said that the area of destruction could be seen from space, but it seems that was not proven. In recent years, some historians advanced the idea that Sherman did not order the wholesale destruction throughout their route of march, but some overzealous Union soldiers, as well as the bummers, may have exceeded Sherman’s orders. Still, along the “Sherman’s neckties” were the chimneys of burned down farm houses, known as “Sherman’s toothpicks.”

Also taking place was the ever increasing amount of freed slaves accompanying the army. Sherman had no love for African-Americans and found the group a drag on his army and a drain on his supplies.

27 November, 1864: There is a cavalry clash at Waynesboro, south of Augusta. Wheeler is driven off and Sherman’s advance continues.

2 December, 1864: Sherman reaches Millen. There is a rail line directly into Savannah and his army begins to follow it. The four columns begin to converge.

4 December, 1864: Cavalry continue to clash at Waynesboro.

7 December, 1864: Sherman’s forces skirmish at Jenk’s Bridge, west of Savannah.

9 December, 1864: As Federal troops approach the area south of Savannah, they find that the rice fields are flooded in order to hamper their advance.

10 December, 1864: The bulk of Sherman’s army arrives outside of Savannah. Facing them are 18,000 Confederates under Hardee.

11 December, 1864: Sherman has Savannah surrounded except for the road to Charleston, SC. The next plan will be to take the forts guarding the city and to make contact with the US Navy blockade.

13 December, 1864: XV Corps regiments assault Fort McAllister, the main fort guarding Savannah, and successfully captures the position. Sherman makes contact with Admiral John Dahlgren and makes a report of his march to be sent to Grant. Sherman can also resupply his forces by way of cargo ships that were with the blockade.

18 December, 1864: Sherman sends a demand to Hardee for surrender. This is refused. What Sherman did not know was that Hardee was looking for a way to get his forces away. Hardee’s engineers were building a pontoon bridge and a road just for that purpose.

20 December, 1864: During the night, Hardee manages to get his forces on the march to Charleston with their artillery and supplies.

21 December, 1864: Upon finding that the confederates have left Savannah, Sherman orders his army to push in and occupy the town. As the Federals push in, the only CS Navy vessel in the harbor, CSS Savannah is destroyed to prevent capture. By evening, Savannah is in Federal hands.

22 December, 1864: Sherman sends a telegram to President Lincoln, ,” I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns, and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

The only thing that Sherman could not do was bag Hardee’s army, which would join up with the army that General Joe Johnston was assembling in South Carolina, which would be Sherman’s next operation.

The March to the Sea was proof that the nature of war had changed forever. No longer would it be just between armies in the field. Included in the list of legitimate military targets were industry and farms, even though they were manned by civilians. Sherman wanted the citizens of Georgia to feel “the heavy hand of war” and he accomplished that.

It would be February of 1865 before Sherman began another campaign, but this next operation would end at Durham Station, NC and the surrender of Johnston’s army.

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